Sterling Bay Falls Short In Attempt To Build Community Support For Lincoln Yards
Sterling Bay officials weren't able to woo the community last week with the company's now revised $5B Lincoln Yards proposal. A boisterous and sometimes angry crowd filled Park Community Church’s massive auditorium on the Near North Side Thursday night, and for several hours after a short presentation, they tossed questions at the company’s team.
The developers had already publicized their revised outline for the former Finkl Steel site along the Chicago River, first unveiled in July, so there were no real surprises. Sterling Bay boosted the amount of park space, removed two buildings from the proposal, and cut down the high-rises from 800 feet to a maximum of 650 feet.
Residents of the adjacent Lincoln Park and Bucktown neighborhoods still expressed concern over how much traffic the project’s 5,000 residences, new office buildings and 20,000-seat soccer stadium will generate. Debate also continues on how much open space will exist, who will control it and what possible threats to local music venues are posed by Sterling Bay’s partnership with Live Nation, an events promoter that will operate a Lincoln Yards complex.
Sterling Bay has already proven it can transform neighborhoods. It created Google’s new regional headquarters out of a cold storage building, helping fuel remarkable amounts of growth in the West Loop’s Fulton Market. But that area had mostly industrial users, and the company’s most recent experience illustrates that developers may struggle when launching transformative projects near residential neighborhoods.
“I understand this is a big change,” Sterling Bay Managing Principal Andy Gloor said. He began by telling the crowd the entire development team lives within a mile of the site and shares the concerns about possible traffic congestion and any adverse effect on local schools.
Gloor attempted to dispel rumors the firm would soon see hundreds of millions of dollars flow into its coffers through the proposed tax increment financing district. Sterling Bay plans to pay for the necessary infrastructure, he said, and it will only get repaid after finishing the work. He said those improvements will benefit every resident by stitching together neighborhoods long separated by a belt of industry and dead-end streets.
He said the firm supports both the call by many neighbors for a publicly owned park just outside the project, and The Hideout, a historic music spot tucked into a side street. The club, which holds a popular street festival every summer, will play an important role for Lincoln Yards by providing it the character and liveliness Sterling Bay tries to promote in all its communities, Gloor said.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Douglas Voigt outlined further details. Since July, the team increased the amount of public open space from 13.4 acres to 20.88 acres, including 8.4 acres of park, an 8.5-acre plaza and almost 4 acres dedicated to a pedestrian walkway along the river.
A new Metra station, along with a fully connected street grid and an extension of Bucktown’s popular 606 trail to Lincoln Yards should benefit the whole neighborhood by relieving congestion, he said.
The team recently completed a traffic study and an event management plan. But the fact that these analyses are now in the hands of city officials, and not the public, was met with grumbling and loud complaints from the audience.
Sterling Bay principal Keating Crown said confusion occurred when the company pursued Amazon as a possible anchor tenant. Some people thought the model for that possibility, which would eventually have meant 50,000 jobs at the site, was the preferred plan.
“For better or worse, Amazon is not coming here,” he said to loud applause.
He said about 23,000 jobs could be at Lincoln Yards, but plans are fluid and could change after more community feedback.
The vagueness still bothers Robert Gomez, co-chair of the Chicago Independent Venues League and owner of Subterranean and Beat Kitchen.
“What is the entertainment district all about?” he asked. “Can we get some clarity?”
But Sterling Bay General Counsel Dean Marks could only respond that Live Nation has “committed to make a significant investment in the development.”
That and other similar responses were met with loud disapproval.
Neighborhood resident Kate McCarter accused Sterling Bay of “playing PR games. There has not been transparency.” She was especially concerned about the company’s proposal for park space and feared it would be privately controlled. “We need a publicly owned park. The river belongs to all of us,” she said.
Remarks like this clearly frustrated the development team. Several members repeatedly said that, in addition to supporting the off-site park proposal, Sterling Bay offered to transfer ownership of the on-site parks to the city and even continue handling maintenance. But city officials turned the offer down.
Alderman Brian Hopkins, whose ward encompasses Lincoln Yards, was not convinced the city’s “no” on that subject was final. He said the response may have come from Park District staff rather than the CEO or commissioners.
“I can understand the staff’s instinctive reluctance. They can barely pay for what they have,” he said.
Not everyone who spoke was critical. Several residents praised both the overall plan and what Sterling Bay had done for the West Loop, remarks that received a measure of applause.
But a lot of questions remain. Other speakers asked the developers to make firm commitments about creating more affordable housing, preserving the area’s many “high-character” buildings, doing an independent traffic study that focuses on what happens when 20,000 people crowd into the stadium and many other issues.
“Many of us feel this whole process has been rushed,” neighborhood resident Amy Abramson said. And even though company officials boast about the many community meetings held, she believes the process “has been managed.”
Hopkins played referee for much of the evening and said he disagrees with Abramson.
“I understand your reasons for being skeptical,” he said. “But to say it’s been rushed is simply untrue.”
“I’ve maintained an open posture on how many meetings we need,” and will let that process play out however long it takes to reach consensus, Hopkins said. “It’s clear to all of us we’re not there yet.”